The death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., has brought national attention to the serious and sometimes deadly interactions that youth of color often have with the police.
However, racial discrimination against youth isn’t limited to encounters with the police. These policing practices often result in youth being funneled into the criminal justice system. In the United States approximately 200,000 youth under 18 are tried as adults each year, and on any given day more than 6,000 youth are detained in adult jails and prisons. Due to the racial disparities at every stage in the process — from decisions about whom to stop through whom to prosecute as adults — the majority of the youth in the adult system are minorities.
These young people spend their formative years in adult jails and prisons that frequently place them at risk for sexual and physical violence. Locking youth away in adult facilities that do not address their developmental needs or capacity for change destroys their future.
A United Nations human rights body recently criticized the U.S. for the severity of police use of force against youth of color and its treatment of youth in the criminal justice system. The U.N. Committee Against Torture expressed concern in “Concluding Observations” over the “conditions of detention for juveniles, including their placement in adult jails and prisons” and recommended that the U.S. “resort more to alternatives to incarceration” for juveniles. The committee also emphasized the need to end practices that are particularly harmful to youth. It stated that the U.S. should abolish solitary confinement for juveniles, “ensure that juvenile detainees and prisoners under 18 are held separately from adults” and prohibit the use of stun guns on children.
The committee also expressed concern about “numerous reports of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, in particular against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups.” It articulated “deep concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.” It noted in particular reports of racial profiling and excessive use of force by the Chicago Police against African-American and Latino young people.
Other U.N. bodies have criticized the U.S. for racial profiling, discrimination in the justice system and laws and policies that allow or require youth under the age of 18 to be treated as adults in the criminal system. In August, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued “Concluding Observations” expressing concern about racial disparities at all levels of the criminal and juvenile justice systems. CERD criticized the “disproportionate rate at which youth from racial and ethnic minorities are … referred to the criminal justice system, prosecuted as adults, and incarcerated in adult prisons.”
It recommended that the U.S. address the racial disparities and “ensure that juveniles are not transferred to adult courts and are separated from adults during pretrial detention and after sentencing.” CERD also expressed concern about the “practice of profiling racial and ethnic minorities by law enforcement officials.” It emphasized concern over the high levels of brutality and excessive force used by law enforcement officers toward mostly “members of racial and ethnic minorities, including unarmed individuals.”
The Committee Against Torture and CERD criticism of the U.S. reflect important concerns about how racism affects the policing of communities and the treatment of youth of color within the criminal justice system. They also reflect the consensus of the international community that children in conflict with the law have the right to special protection because of their youth and their capacity for change. Subjecting youth to adult criminal punishments rather than providing age-appropriate rehabilitative programs during a crucial time in their development will have a lifelong detrimental impact.
The comments from these two U.N. committees recognize that we must do more to address racial discrimination and to protect youth of color. It is time the U.S. is held accountable for the actions of law enforcement officials and pushed to develop alternatives to the criminalization of youth. Hopefully, the recent international scrutiny can support advocates currently taking to the streets in solidarity to show that the lives and future of minority youth do matter.
Tawakalitu Amusa is a third-year law student in the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York Law School. IWHR submitted a report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture with the Campaign For Youth Justice and other groups.